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Chapter One

Wearily, Elise made her way down the steps of the tiny aircraft that had flown her from Ottawa to the remote town of Kuvanerk, perched on the southern coast of Canada’s Baffin Island. Although she’d lost count of the number of flights she took each year, they never ceased to exhaust her. She guessed it didn’t help that she’d never truly overcome her fear of flying or, rather, her fear of the plane falling out of the sky.

Her journey had started over twenty hours ago as she’d left the rain and cold of a grey, dismal June day in London. Despite all her travelling, Elise knew that London was her home. It was where she had grown up with her three sisters, where she retreated whenever she needed a break from her relentless schedule as a freelance photographer and where, increasingly, she felt a longing to settle permanently, rather than continue her current nomadic existence trekking from wilderness to wilderness. Despite that, she knew that the weather in London often left a lot to be desired even in the summer, although her latest assignment was unlikely to have brought her to warmer climes.

From London she had taken the twelve hour flight to Ottawa via Toronto, transferred airports and then waited for a few more hours in the chilly airport lounge for the tiny twelve seat aircraft to arrive to fly her to Kuvanerk and the gateway to Arctic Canada.

As she looked back over her shoulder, she shivered softly into the insulated layers of her down jacket, although she wasn’t sure whether it was from the memory of the turbulent three hour flight in the tiny plane or from the biting cold wind blowing in her face. Although it was mid-June, and technically the start of summer, Arctic Canada still saw some snow at this time of year and its vast sheets of ice were only just beginning to melt. She knew that those conditions were going to make the next couple of weeks much tougher but, she hoped, they would also result in a stunning backdrop to the pictures of the Arctic wolves she was hoping to be able to photograph in their natural habitat. Very little was known about the habitat or territories of the Arctic wolf, mainly because its remote and inhospitable haunts kept it largely safe from the predatory nature of man, which meant that her commission by an international photo journal was a coup for Elise both personally and professionally.

Elise certainly hadn’t flown into Kuvanerk to threaten the wolves’ habitat in any way. She specialised in photographing wildlife in its natural surroundings, often going where other photographers and journalists refused to venture. She’d spent the last few years in places as far afield as the Masai Mara and Serengeti in Africa and the Atacama Desert of Chile, in each case spending weeks camping out waiting for the perfect photograph, the one which would capture the beauty of the animal against the stark bleak wilderness in which it lived and survived.

This latest project was quite different for her though, as she had only two weeks to get the shots she needed, not to mention the fact that she needed to use these two weeks to think carefully about the offer of a permanent editorial job based in London that she had received a while ago and for which she was now being pressed to give an answer.

“Miss Bentley?” a deep, inherently confident voice called out to her.

Startled out of her reverie, she swung quickly to one side peering out from the warmth of her scarf to see a tall, dark male figure striding towards her and she tried to hide the automatic grin that pulled at the corners of her mouth. She would bet her entire commission for this project that the man marching determinedly towards her was Max Bryant, good friend and former army buddy of Tom Sinclair, her sister Lily’s fiancé.

Tom, along with Luke and Alex  - her other two quasi-brothers in law - had been tormenting her for ages about the safety, or more to the point, lack of safety, involved in her taking on and wandering through the world’s wildernesses by herself. Most recently, to Elise’s innate amusement, they had joined forces and insisted that she have company on her next trip. Normally, Elise would have laughed at their overly zealous protectiveness and been secretly irritated at their continual need to treat her like a child, but she’d admitted to herself – if not to them – that the travel did become quite lonely at times and some company could be an interesting change. Besides, from what Tom had said, Max Bryant knew the Canadian Arctic well and, in particular, had spent time around Ingiyokke Park, her ultimate destination. It just might be the case that the man would be useful, rather than a hindrance, to her project.

However, a frown also creased her brow; she was supposed to meet Max Bryant that evening for dinner in Kuvanerk, where they would finalise their itinerary for the next couple of weeks. Tom had told her that Max had occasionally acted as a guide around the park in the last couple of years, even though he was normally based in the United Kingdom, and that he would be happy to accompany her throughout the two weeks and generally follow any sensible route through the park. None of that, however, explained why or how the man had shown up at the airport. It was amusingly predictable that Tom’s friend would take the job of chaperoning her to a new level of seriousness and would show up early, but she didn’t remember giving him her flight details.

As he advanced towards her, she unconsciously took a slight step backwards, as rather than just being tall, he was one of the biggest men she had encountered. He had to be well over 6 feet 6 inches, taller even than her brothers in law, with broad shoulders and a chiselled face. Although she couldn’t be sure, she wouldn’t be surprised if the man was pure muscle from head to toe without an inch of fat on him. Although large men didn’t scare her automatically, in the last year one awful experience had taught her to be wary; as no matter how street smart she thought she was, she knew she couldn’t compete against pure physical strength of the kind she was now facing.

To her relief, as he came closer to her, she saw that his eyes were kind even though they had narrowed slightly as he saw and noted her instinctive retreat.

“Miss Bentley?” he queried again as he came up to her, more softly this time. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m Max Bryant.” He held out his hand to her in greeting.

“Oh!” she stumbled slightly over her words, not having expected a man of this size and obvious confidence to have even noticed her reaction, let alone apologise to her. “Hi Max. Yes, no... that is, yes, I’m Elise.” She paused and then blurted out, “You didn’t scare me, I just didn’t expect to see you here. I thought we were meeting later tonight?”

He grinned, his hard features softening fractionally as he took in her confusion. “I flew in yesterday, so I thought I may as well pick you up from the airport and make sure you got to the hotel more easily. You’re probably exhausted after the flight.”

“Oh!” Surprise radiated through her voice and over her face. “That’s really nice of you, thank you. I didn’t know you even knew what flight I’d be on.”

“Well...” His grin turned to a slight frown. “You did forget to reply to my, or Tom’s, emails leaving us your flight details... Fortunately, I know the guys at the airport pretty well and they confirmed which connecting flight you were picking up.”

“Oh! I haven’t checked my email for a couple of days, so I didn’t see anything from you or Tom,” she frowned. “I’ll give him a call from the hotel; I hope he wasn’t worried.”

He chuckled. “Don’t worry; he knows that I was planning to meet you at the airport and I told him which flights you were booked on, so he shouldn’t be worried. Although,” he added, “I’m sure he and Lily would love to hear from you anyway and know that you arrived here in one piece.”

He quickly disguised the smile that automatically pulled at his lips as he saw her astonishment that he’d checked up on her flights, knowing from what Tom had told him that the lovely Elise Bentley was often independent to the point of being foolhardy. Tom had confided in him that, in his view, she’d looked after herself when she was travelling for work for so long that her self-reliance was now second nature to her; and more times than not, she simply failed to think that someone else could help her out or take some of the responsibility off her shoulders.

He caught sight of a figure jumping from the tiny aircraft behind Elise. “Hey, Steve!” he called out, recognising the man immediately as one of the co-pilots who regularly flew the Ottawa-Kuvanerk route. “You happen to know where Miss Bentley’s bags are?”

He knew, from experience, that the bags of all the passengers – not that there were very many – would be unloaded quickly and delivered into the airport building. But he’d seen the weariness on Elise’s face and known immediately how tired the young woman was from the trip, even though she’d tried to hide it. He figured that anything that might save her a bit of time so he could get her safely back to the hotel would be a good thing.

Elise looked on in bemusement as Max calmly and naturally, took charge and retrieved her bags from the small plane, so that they didn’t have the hassle of waiting for them to be transferred to the small terminal. Before she knew what was happening, she found herself being ushered out of the cold, through the airport and into Max’s waiting car. As she fastened her seatbelt, she wryly thought to herself how she had been very mistaken to assume she knew, from her brothers in law, what domineering, assertive men were like, and how to handle them. From the little she’d seen of Max, he looked like he knew how to take those attributes to a whole new level!

As he started the engine and began the drive away from the airport towards central Kuvanerk he smiled over at her, pleased to see that she already looked more relaxed now she was in the warmth and security of the car. The faint lines of tension had quickly disappeared from her brow.

“You okay now?” he asked gently.

She blinked at him in surprise. “Er... sure... I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong, really. I was just surprised to see you at the airport, that was all.” She paused slightly. “Thank you for coming to pick me up; it’s really kind of you and I do appreciate it. It was just unexpected and I guess I’m a bit tired. Sorry I haven’t been more talkative...”

He laughed out loud at her reaction. “There’s no need to apologise, Elise! I just thought you seemed tired when you got off the plane, and a bit tense maybe. But you seem more relaxed now.”

He cheeks reddened as she realised that Max was clearly more observant than she had given him credit for, particularly if he’d already noticed how tense she’d been exiting that rickety little plane. She’d spent the last ten years schooling her reactions so that it wasn’t obvious how much she disliked air travel.

“Oh... it’s nothing, really,” she said, still blushing. “I... I’m just sometimes not great at flying, that’s all. I get over it pretty quickly though,” she added, wanting to reassure him that he wasn’t going to be travelling with an emotional wreck of a woman for the next couple of weeks.

“You’re kidding? But don’t you fly all the time?” He looked at her disbelievingly, but seeing the worry in her eyes at his reaction, quickly changed the subject. “Look, we’re heading into Kuvanerk proper now.” He pointed out to her the key local landmarks in the small town so that she could get her bearings before pulling up next to a small hotel.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “It looks really nice!”

“What did you expect?” He raised an eyebrow at her quizzically, before jumping out of the car and moving round to her side of the vehicle to help her down.

“Well... I kind of figured the town would be much smaller than this, with just a few B&Bs and stores for provisions. I guess I was wrong...”

He laughed. “It’s an easy mistake to make. Sure, the town acts as a gateway to Baffin, and even Greenland and beyond, but it’s also a thriving town in its own right. We have museums, theatres, cinemas... all the things you’d find in any town really.”

“We?” Immediately Elise picked up on his use of the pronoun. “I thought you were based in the UK rather than Kuvanerk?”

“I am, but I lived here for over a year and I guess there’s still a part of me that feels tied to this part of the world. I’ll tell you more about my background over dinner. For now though,” he steered her towards the reception desk where an older woman was waiting, beaming, to welcome them to the hotel, “let’s get you checked in and you can get some rest.”

*****

Half an hour later, Elise found herself laying back snuggled into the downy luxury of soft pillows. Max had swiftly checked her into the hotel and made sure that her bags were safely deposited with her, before writing down his room number for her and telling her that she should get a few hours rest before meeting him for dinner that evening.

Well, she thought, “telling her” was more than a bit of an understatement. He was clearly a man who was used to giving orders and expected them to be obeyed without question. It hadn’t even occurred to him that she might have things she needed or wanted to do; she’d had vague thoughts about exploring the town in the few hours she had before dinner.

She sighed. Not that she minded this time, she thought to herself. She was so tired that she’d practically jumped at the chance to take a nap and recharge her now diminishing internal batteries. Max Bryant may be used to giving orders, but he also seemed to be able to read her pretty well, even if he hadn’t met her before. She frowned, knowing how unusual that was. More often than not, men complained that she was impossible to get to know, as she didn’t let people get close enough. Not that that was true. Rather, she was just picky in her choice of confidants, as she’d always felt the need to find a connection with a person before she could really open up and be herself with them.

She slipped deeper into her stack of pillows, resting her head back and letting her eyes drift shut. Max reminded her of her brothers in law. Not that that should have surprised her. She loved Luke, Tom and Alex dearly, but each of them was fiercely protective of his family, which included Elise, and had no qualms about letting his natural, dominant and authoritative masculinity rise to the surface in a display of protectiveness, if he thought the need arose. There was no way any of them would have allowed Elise to be accompanied by someone who didn’t match their own ideals and values.

Elise smiled to herself. It could prove to be an interesting couple of weeks with Max Bryant. Indeed, she knew that her sister Lily was holding out hopes that Elise and Max would hit it off in more ways than one, even though Elise had warned her that she wasn’t on the lookout for a boyfriend. Although, now that Lily was engaged to Tom she wanted everyone to experience that same happiness and security, and so Elise had found it difficult to dissuade her from her romantic notions. Now that she’d met Max though, she had to admit that he was one of the most attractive men she’d encountered. The similarity in personality to her brothers in law was oddly reassuring, even though it made her slightly apprehensive, and physically... well, the man could hardly be faulted!

Sleepily, Elise let her eyes drift shut and gave in to the doziness, knowing that not only the physical demands of the next two weeks would require all her energy, but that emotionally she may well need her wits about her around Max!

*****

Grabbing her insulated jacket and bag, Elise ran down the stairs of the small hotel, worried that she was running late. Although they were only having dinner at a restaurant down the road, the temperature outside was freezing, despite the bright sunlight, and it had taken her longer than she had thought to pull on all her layers of clothing.

“Steady!” A hand reached out to grab her just as Elise lost her footing on the last stair and she looked up to see Max staring down at her, concern etched on his face. Carefully, he set her back upright but kept his hand on the small of her back. “Are you okay?”

Annoyed at herself for being so clumsy, which was unlike her, she nodded briefly and paused to catch her breath. “Yes...sorry about that. I was worried I was late and wasn’t looking where I was going I guess.”

Tilting her head up towards him, he gazed down at her with narrowed eyes. “No one ever tell you that running on stairs is a bad idea, hmm?”

She flushed, knowing that he was right, and pouted slightly at him, even as she took the hand he offered and stepped down the last stair, this time safely.

“I guess so,” she mumbled and then, wanting to change the subject, asked brightly, “So where is it we’re going for dinner?”

He raised his eyebrows at her, letting her know that he knew exactly what she was doing, but that he was choosing to play along.

“There’s a good grill down the road I thought we could go to. It’s nothing fancy, but the food’s all fresh and homemade and there’s a pretty good variety. Does that work for you?”

“Sure,” she responded brightly as they made their way out of the hotel towards the restaurant.

As they settled at their table, the waiter approached to hand them menus and ask if they wanted drinks. Max looked surprised when Elise just ordered a diet coke and some water for herself.

“You don’t fancy some wine after all that travel?” he queried.

Grimacing, she shook her head firmly. “I guess you saw that I’m not the best traveller at times. Usually I’d welcome a glass of wine, but I know that tomorrow we’re going to have to get on another one of those tiny planes. Trust me, a glass of wine now will just make it worse. It might relax some people, but it will just keep me awake worrying about it.” Even as she spoke the words, Elise was surprised at herself. She seemed unable to hold her tongue with this man and was giving away all her secrets without thought. She cursed herself inwardly.

But, to her astonishment, he didn’t seem to judge her for her fears of flying, but instead just seemed to accept her words at face value. “That makes sense I suppose. But tell me, how is it possible that someone with a fear of flying chose a career that involves spending almost as much time on planes as off of them?”

She sighed, knowing that his logic was right and she had made some seemingly odd choices over the years. “It’s kind of strange I know, but I always knew I wanted to be a photo journalist. And since it was always the natural world that interested me, rather than cities or portraits or events, I figured I’d just have to suck it up and deal with the travel.” She frowned. “Don’t get me wrong, I love it once I’ve landed on solid ground. I wouldn’t have carried on doing it for so long if I didn’t. I’ve learned to cope with the flights, but I don’t think I’ll ever reach the point when the thought of them doesn’t stress me slightly.”

Now it was Max’s turn to frown. “Does your family know how you feel about the travel? It must worry them to know that something you love so much requires you to be stressed in order to pursue it!” It wasn’t quite disapproval that she sensed in Max’s voice, rather a concern and, oddly, a hint of protectiveness.

“Well, I think my sisters suspect that I’m not keen on it; but it’s not something they’ve ever had to witness with me, and they haven’t asked.” She laughed. “I suppose I haven’t volunteered the information, as I don’t want them to worry more than they already do while I’m away!”

“Hmm...” Max didn’t sound convinced, but seemed content to leave the matter for the time being, except for adding, “Well, if you were my sister, or part of my family in any way, I’d want to know!”

Suddenly worried, she groaned and said, “Max, you can’t tell Tom. Please. He worries enough as it is!”

“Don’t worry, Elise,” Max reassured her gently, taking her hand across the table and stroking it lightly to soothe her. “Your secrets are safe with me, although it’s not something I think you need to keep to yourself. Loads of people dislike flying but still tackle it. Although admittedly,” he added, “not on quite the same scale that you do!” He smiled down at her. “You know, Tom and I had the misfortune to take huge numbers of horrific flights in tiny planes and helicopters while we were in the forces. I don’t remember a single man in our team looking forward to those flights! Grown men went pale at the thought!”

Feeling a bit better, Elise laughed and took a sip of her diet coke. “So what about you?” she asked. “I know that you were in the army with Tom for years and that you now run a security company based in London; but Tom never went into details about your background except to say that he trusted you!” She rolled her eyes at Max. “He never really explained how you were such an expert on this area of the Arctic, or how come you’d spent so much time here.”

Max grinned at her. “There’s not that much to tell, really. After we left the army, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, and I ended up spending a year or so out here, which is how I know so many people locally. We’d passed through the area on military survival courses before and I’d always felt at home here, so it seemed the natural place to come and figure out my next steps. I needed some time to myself to think about the future before I settled back in the UK.”

He paused as the waiter came over to take their orders, and then continued on, “In that year here, I figured out a business plan to take home to the UK with me. The security firm I run is pretty wide ranging, but one of our areas of expertise is providing security, escorts and guides for private companies that need to transport people or supplies through some of the world’s more remote regions.”

“You mean like mercenaries?” Elise looked shocked.

“No, not at all!” he laughed. “We definitely don’t supply small armies! What we do is provide research beforehand for companies, giving them full updates about the main risks in the area. And then we provide them with on the ground support to help them navigate their way through non-existent transport systems, poor supplies and so on. One of our big selling points is that we understand the local communities with whom they’ll be dealing, and emphasise sustainable development and environmentally friendly commerce. Which means,” he added, “that in today’s world of checklists and targets, if they follow our advice, they tend to hit lots more of those soft government targets and milestones than their competitors; and also the local communities are more likely to want to deal with them as they don’t try and ride rough shod over local populations.”

“So no armies then!” She smiled.

“Nope. Our people definitely know how to defend themselves, and those they’re with, but the emphasis is on avoiding those kind of situations in the first place. If they want military style private security, we can put them in touch with people who run that kind of operation, but it’s not where our area of expertise lies.”

“Fair enough,” she said, silently relieved that, although he looked like the kind of man who could single-handed deliver a small army if the need was there, he’d focussed his attentions on creating something more valuable and sustainable. “So does that mean you travel lots too?”

“Less so than I used to. To begin with, when the company was in its early days, I did a lot of the work on the ground myself, but these days we have enough people who want those adventures, that I tend to work from the UK a lot more and just pick and choose if there’s something that really takes my fancy.”

“Or get conned into babysitting your friend’s sister in law on her trip to the Arctic?” Elise figured she may as well be upfront with Max.

“Conned? Are you joking?” He looked genuinely baffled.

Suddenly unsure of herself, she tried to explain, “Well, I figured that accompanying a photo journalist you’ve never met before to the Canadian Arctic wouldn’t be high on your list of things that ‘really take your fancy’.”

Quietly, and more seriously, he looked at her assessingly and told her, “Tom definitely didn’t con me into anything, Elise. I thought you knew; but a little while ago I met up with Tom; your other two brothers in law, Luke and Alex, were also there, and they were clearly worried about your constant travel and the kind of danger in which you could find yourself. They knew your stint in Kenya was coming to an end, but were worried about the prospect of you then venturing into the Arctic.”

He looked disapprovingly at her. “It seemed they’d only just found out that you tended to travel by yourself, without any guide or protection, and that you’d misled them into thinking you went with support. I offered to be around when you started the Arctic project to give them some peace of mind and, frankly, because I was horrified at the idea of a young woman without any experience of these kind of conditions being out here on her own!”

“I did not deliberately mislead them!” she exclaimed hotly.

“Really?”

“No! It’s hardly my fault if they assumed there was a team of people wherever I went. If they knew more about photo journalism, they’d have realised, earlier on, that you can hardly photograph animals in their natural habitats if you have a film crew and a million and one people with you at the time!”

“That’s odd,” he commented, seemingly neutrally. “Alex seemed to think that while he’d been in the States, he’d asked you about the travel and you’d definitely suggested you had company.”

Elise flushed, knowing she’d been caught out in what was, at best, a partial truth. She did remember Alex asking about her travels and she’d known what his reaction would be, if he knew she was wandering around pretty much on her own. He’d always been protective, even when they were all kids growing up together. Since he’d returned from the States, and he and her sister, Isabelle, had finally formed a relationship, that protectiveness had only become more acute in every way. The man refused to appreciate that she was now a responsible and capable adult!

Fortunately, their food arrived and she didn’t have to find an answer to his observations immediately.

At last, she said softly, “I didn’t want to worry anyone, Max. I know they all worry about me anyway, I’m not stupid, but the travel – and the loneliness – go hand in hand with the job at times, and I can’t change that. There was no point in having them worry more than they do already.”

“I can see that,” he replied, his eyes filled with understanding. “But I just want to make sure you know that, for the next couple of weeks, you need to be absolutely honest and open with me. The Arctic is no place for concealing worries or fears, Elise. Even though Kuvanerk is a modern town, once we move on to Ingiyokke Park the environment changes, and that environment can be dangerous in places. I know you’re used to being around less than tame wildlife, but here that wildlife is combined with freezing, harsh conditions. We need to work as a team, and I need to know if anything’s wrong or if you’re struggling with anything. Okay?”

She nodded, knowing he was right, but also wanting him to know that she wasn’t a child; she was a professional who had been contending with the hostilities of nature throughout her career. “Sure. I do know the ground rules, Max. I’ve spent loads of time in harsh environments. I know safety’s paramount all the time.”

“Good. But this isn’t Africa or South America you’re in now, Elise. Those places have their own unique risks and dangers just as much as the Arctic, but the Arctic has different dangers, ones you may not be as used to. Okay?”

She rolled her eyes at him again, intrigued to see exactly the same unwavering, immovable attitude in him that she saw in her brothers, but slightly wary now that she was the sole focus of its attention. “Yes, Max. I promise, okay?”

“Hmm....” He didn’t look totally convinced at her response. “Your brothers have been indulgent with you, Elise. Don’t think that I’ll be so malleable!”

“What?” she squeaked.

“You know they have. Whereas any one of your sisters would have been on the receiving end of a sound spanking if they put themselves in the kind of dangerous situations you’ve probably encountered daily, not to mention what would happen if they had tried to keep the truth hidden, your brothers have been easy going with you as they’ve been worried you don’t trust them enough to accept them protecting you as they’d like.”

Elise spluttered her diet coke, not quite believing what Max was telling her about her brothers, or that he clearly knew the dynamic under which her sisters’ relationships operated. “Are you kidding me? Easy going? They’ve been ganging up on me for ages to prevent me travelling on my own. But that’s irrelevant; they should never have told you intimate details about their relationships. It’s personal between them and my sisters!”

“Relax, Elise,” he hastened to reassure her. “They didn’t betray any confidences. I’ve known Tom for so many years; it would be difficult not to know how he approaches relationships. I’d find it hard to imagine that he would have undergone such a fundamental change in character when he met Lily. And when I met Alex and Luke they struck me as having the same approach to life and relationship dynamics as Tom has and, for that matter,” he added softly, “as I have.”

She gulped. It didn’t surprise her. It didn’t even particularly worry her, even if he was a bit intimidating. However, she did feel suddenly off balance with this man, as the conversation had taken on such a personal quality.

“All I’m saying, Elise, is that for the next couple of weeks I’m happy to guide you wherever you need to go in Ingiyokke and help you get the photos you need, but in return you need to abide by what I say, as there will be a reason behind it. I don’t issue orders or rules for no reason. If you don’t, you’ll be endangering both of us, and I won’t put up with that. I won’t be as indulgent as your brothers have been, as the environment out here is too dangerous for that. You will find yourself over my knee if you break those rules, and you won’t like it. Understand?”

And with that declaration, facing a speechless Elise, a smile tugged again at his lips and he dug into his steak.

 


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